Imagine the shock of waking up one morning to find one side of your face paralyzed. This frightening scenario is what faces sufferers of a condition known as Bell’s palsy. However, although it can seem very alarming at first, Bell’s palsy is generally less serious than it first appears.
What causes Bell’s palsy?
Bell’s palsy is caused by a fault in the facial nerve that runs down the side of your face in front of your ear. Health experts believe that this nerve gets swollen and that the resulting pressure prevents the nerve from working properly.
The exact reasons for this swelling are not always clear, but there are some people who seem to be more at risk of developing Bell’s palsy.
Who is most likely to develop Bell’s palsy?
Bell’s palsy affects both men and women equally and develops in around 40,000 people in the US each year. It generally affects those aged 15-60. Sometimes there is no clear trigger, but it’s more likely to appear after viral infections involving the herpes simplex (cold sore) virus, the varicella-zoster (shingles) virus, Lyme disease or HIV.
A head injury or benign tumor can also create a physical cause for the nerve swelling. Meanwhile, pregnant women are more likely to develop Bell’s palsy, as are those with progressive conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis and diabetes.
What is Bell’s Palsy Symptoms?
The most noticeable Bell’s Palsy Symptoms is a sudden onset of weakness or paralysis down one side of the face (as Bell’s palsy rarely affects both sides), creating a characteristic ‘droop.’ In severe cases, Bell’s palsy may cause twitching in the face or eyes, and even affect the sense of taste.
Often, Bell’s palsy develops with no warning. However, some patients report that they had pain behind the ear or extreme sensitivity to noise for a couple of days prior to the main Bell’s Palsy Symptoms appearing.
Bell’s Palsy Symptoms usually peak within two or three days. Recovery can begin in as little as two weeks, but more commonly takes 3-9 months. The symptoms can occasionally be permanent, but 70% of patients make a full recovery (with around 14% suffering a reoccurrence at some stage).
How does Bell’s palsy affect everyday life?
Bell’s palsy can create difficulties with speech, swallowing, eating and drinking, which all affect the patient’s well-being. They may develop a dry eye (from losing the ability to blink) or suffer excessive tearing.
Dribbling or drooling may be a problem if the mouth is badly affected. Further, many people feel embarrassed or conspicuous because of facial droop. Less common but still uncomfortable symptoms can include headache, dizziness or ringing in the ears.
How is Bell’s palsy treated?
The usual treatment for Bell’s palsy is to administer corticosteroids. This approach is most effective if started within 3 days of the onset of symptoms, so it’s best to consult your family doctor quickly if you believe you may have Bell’s palsy.
Botox can sometimes alleviate some of the more uncomfortable symptoms like tightening of the facial muscles or twitching. If symptoms persist or get worse, plastic surgery can address difficulties with speech, eating, drinking, smiling and eyelid function. In very serious cases, plastic surgery can help adjust the symmetry of the face, and may even involve nerve grafts that replace damaged nerves.
Physiotherapy can also be incredibly helpful in ‘retraining’ your face to carry out functions like smiling or frowning, and it builds muscle strength to aid recovery.
Good eye care is essential during an episode of Bell’s palsy. Eye drops and ointments can be used to lubricate the eye if the eyelid doesn’t blink, and the gentle application of surgical tape will help aid sleep at night.
Bell’s palsy and strokes
It’s easy to confuse the initial facial paralysis or Bell’s palsy with stroke symptoms, so if you’re in any doubt then seek immediate medical attention—early treatment is critical in the event of a stroke. However, Bell’s Palsy Symptoms palsy only affects the face and not the rest of the body.